Robin Coste Lewis: “Black Joy is My Primary Aesthetic”
2015's National Book Award Winner for Poetry, One Year Later
“She must turn around and see / what has happened to her, or she will go mad,” the speaker of Robin Coste Lewis’s poem “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari” remarks as she watches a group of men coax a water buffalo to face her stillborn calf. This is what Lewis’s work does: insist that we face the histories that make us and that we can remake only through a deep, thorough reckoning.
Robin Coste Lewis has written extensively and published modestly. Her only published collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015)—an extraordinary journey with the black female figure through and beyond Western Art History—won the National Book Award for poetry. Lewis earned her MFA in poetry from NYU and her MTS in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from Harvard Divinity School. She has received fellowships from the Caldera Foundation, Cave Canem, the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, and the Ragdale Foundation. She has taught poetry and literature of the African and South Asian diasporas at Hunter College, Hampshire College, the NYU Low-Residency MFA in Paris, Wheaton College, and elsewhere. She is a Provost’s Fellow in Creative Writing and Literature at USC.
I met Lewis at her new home in Los Angeles. Halfway through our conversation, we decided that the day was too beautiful to resist. As we moved outside to the deck, Lewis checked her phone and laughed. “My friend keeps sending me articles about why Cambridge is a great place to live. She wants me to move back.” I looked out over the hills studded with fruit trees and beautiful houses: “Would you leave this?” “This is going to be hard to leave, but if it’s a good job, I’ll go back. For a chance to participate further in safeguarding and contributing to the African Diaspora literary tradition, you can shoot me to the moon! For me, there’s no greater honor.”
Claire Schwartz: Would you describe the world you were born into?
Robin Coste Lewis: Technicolor. Polyester. Terror. Horror. Beauty. Profound love. Avocado trees. Salamanders. Black Power! Bougainvillea. Eucalyptus. Pomegranate. Birds of Paradise. The Pacific. Mobility.
I grew up in a huge Afro-Creole family from Louisiana who all came to Los Angeles during the Great Migration. Hundreds of us landed here. My oldest uncle is 103. He lives in Pasadena and up until a few years ago volunteered, steadily, decade after decade, for the NAACP. The world into which I was born was mobile, modern. Life meant leaving—movement—surviving yes, but surviving with extraordinary verve and beauty (or are verve and beauty forms of survival?). Louisiana’s political history was heinous; my family said goodbye to everything except what their memory could carry, then moved west.
As children, we were all very clear that our family had just landed on the Pacific Rim. We can trace our family’s history in Louisiana back into the 18th century. And yet, many of us were the first generation to be born outside of Louisiana. I was always aware that our real home was elsewhere, some mythical place that made our parents misty and giddy whenever they spoke about it, which was often. Home—wherever that was—was romantic, magical, special, and as such, it was something we could never truly know. So, as a little girl, when I read stories about the frontier and people being born in wagons (My Antonia, for example) I could always relate. I was born in the midst of an escape.
I understood very early on that our real home, Louisiana, was a very dangerous place for black people, and so my family had chosen to give up all their assets and leave. I think that’s why postcolonial literature and the literature of migration resonate so deeply within me. Over the years, I watched my father slowly forget how to speak Creole. Which is to say, I watched a language die. That’s a particular experience. Motion. Memory. Running.
And so I was born on Central Avenue in Compton—a place that is in no way central to anything. But you had these Great Migration families both participating in assimilation and, at the same time, expressing these distinct Southern cultures. What took place here is a very specific cultural expression of the Great Migration, especially as it engaged with Pacific Rim cultures of the Asian Diasporas, and then, of course—most of all—Mexico and all the First Nations who have been here for thousands of years. Los Angeles is a profoundly unique mix of so many diasporas. It’s nothing to meet a family that is Samoan and black and Chinese and Salvadoran. I have a Hawaiian and Chinese branch of my family, too. All to say, yet again, how important specificity is when speaking about black cultures. It isn’t homogenous, which is one of its greatest characteristics. We are everywhere. Everything.
When I was youngest, my father was a janitor. He would come home in his janitor uniform, and then he would change into a suit. We were middle class in New Orleans, then working class when we arrived in Los Angeles, so in the evenings my mother and the other women in the neighborhood would change into something taffeta and put on a string of pearls. Then they’d go walking up and down Central Avenue visiting each other in their houses, cocktails. It was this gorgeous inversion of class. “By day, this is who we have to be, in order to make a living now, but by night, this is who we really are.” I was surrounded by black elegance, immersed in black style, and I knew it. There was—and perhaps still is—nothing more lovely to me.
It is difficult to explain the psychological damage of what it feels like never to see yourself reflected back in your world in any way, ever, even physically, except as caricature.
It was 1960s Los Angeles. There was incredible, intense political struggle. Assassinations were happening left and right. My sister remembers when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was too young to remember. I only saw my father cry a few times. She remembers that when King was shot, my father fell against the wall at our house in Compton and sobbed.
So I grew up in this world. Black political slogans. Black pride. When a black person would come on the TV—which seldom happened—the whole family would run and scream and jump over each other, trying to get to the television in order to see. Not enough is said about the indoctrination of perception. Of course, you had to run because the duration of black performance was always very limited in the media. If you took your time, you’d miss it. It is difficult to explain the psychological damage of what it feels like never to see yourself reflected back in your world in any way, ever, even physically, except as caricature—and even then, so rarely. That’s a skewed experience of perception that is hard to explain.
And of course, all the while we all grew up being shot at by the police so many times it’s almost a joke—a joke so dark it’s white. We knew without a doubt that we were being hunted. I’m talking within the middle class suburbs, now, to which we moved when I was five. I used to dream every night that the Klan was coming down our streets to get me. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
I think that’s why I always return to black joy, or why black joy is my primary aesthetic, often: the world was so muted in what it offered us, but because of love and family and connection, our lives were gorgeous. We had fun. A lot of fun. It was this incredible saturation of love and beauty, and yet, this undertow of profound terror, a terror inspired and supported by the state. That’s the world I grew up in: rich contradiction. Now that I’m thinking about it, it’s very much like my book in tone and aesthetic.
CS: In your essay, “Boarding the Voyage” you talk about writing Voyage of the Sable Venus as being aboard a ship. What does it feel like to imaginatively be at sea while navigating daily life in Manhattan?
RCL: It was very surreal. I don’t know if it’s healthy how easy it is for me to dissociate and time travel. I have a very elastic imagination. For the artist in me, it’s fantastic. There’s very little that I’ve wanted to feel or see that I haven’t been able to experience completely within the privacy of my imagination. My mind is tremendously fluid. But as for staying present and enjoying the moment, it’s sometimes very difficult. I’m often in many places at once. While writing “Voyage,” I literally felt as if I were living at sea while living on 9th Street in New York City, simultaneously.
I’m always intuiting the ancient world, and always aware of colonialism. Those two periods feel as real to me as the day. The closest I came to being in the present in my book is “Plantation,” and look how fucked up that turned out to be! [Laughing.] I don’t feel comfortable here, obviously. The present is such an ahistorical place for me, or the thin layer of history we allow is too shallow for my taste. I can’t talk about the history of African Americans in Western Art without placing several millennia down at the table for consideration. This is a site of profound sadness for me, how easily we agree to the definitions of history. I have to go back and put these other histories in the room in order to even begin to have that conversation. But it is challenging. It would be great, for example, if I were the kind of poet who could just write a poem about eating an apple.
CS: You engage profoundly violent histories in Voyage. At the same time, there is so much beauty in the black artistic and familial kinships you call into the work. The book’s dedication is “for BEAUTY.” Then, there is also the way the black female figure is rendered as ornamentation in so many of the works of Western art whose titles and descriptions comprise the long narrative poem at the center of the book. The black female figure appears in art and domestic objects that attempt to—as you said to Matthew Sharpe in your interview in BOMB—“make hate pretty.” Violence, beauty, and prettiness seem to abut one another throughout Voyage. Would you say more about how these concepts function for you?
RCL: One thing I learned while writing Voyage is that pretty and beauty are, for me, in no way related. Pretty is a patriarchal performance. Pretty is about the male gaze, white consumption, objectification. Pretty is a part of capitalism. While Beauty is as old as dirt. Beauty is dark, complex, transformation—and not for the faint at heart. Beauty is the Sublime, which means you cannot stand in its presence, but must fall to your knees. It is often unattractive, what it brings in its hands for you and only you. And the question is always Do you have the strength to stand here and take it. That experience is often unpleasant, or it is a journey, a quest. But if it is true, that Beauty is a particular face of the Goddess, why would you ever run? Regardless of what Beauty asks of one, one must stay to the end.
There’s too much that is actually beautiful—I mean awe-inspiring; sublime—within blackness that we miss out on daily, if not hourly, by engaging in arguments around the right to exist.
Writing Voyage gave me many gifts. One was to put my flag down in Beauty’s camp and to renounce pretty forever. I pitched my tent inside Beauty’s terrifying perimeter. I gladly ran toward Her draft. I didn’t know that’s what the war was for me—as a feminist, as a woman, as a black person, as a critic, as a historian. I didn’t know when I set out to write Voyage that Beauty, as an ideological territory, must be defended, guarded, cherished. Voyage taught me that Beauty might be the greatest territory of all, that ultimate terrain over which we struggle because it’s about who and what gets to be cherished. And what land mass or nation on Earth is vaster than that?
Beauty turned out to be a very thorough method for interrogating history. What is being cherished, and what isn’t—those are excellent methodological questions to use for engagement. But with so many ideologies that I adore—ideologies that have sustained me for decades—there’s often no room for the kind of pleasure I feel about the world and about African diasporic histories. For some short-sighted reason I’ve yet to understand, as helpful as it is, theoretical or critical spaces don’t offer enough room in which I can rejoice. I don’t get to stroll down the street of certain theories while twirling a parasol. And if I don’t get to do that, then fuck it. There’s too much that is actually beautiful—I mean awe-inspiring; sublime—within blackness that we miss out on daily, if not hourly, by engaging in arguments around the right to exist, or useless rather obvious observations about the pervasiveness of whiteness. That was an argument black critics nailed and put to rest over a century ago. Douglass, et al. We don’t need to recreate the wheel. We just need to be more aware that it already exists—and celebrate and keep that history always on the table. That work has already been done. We only think it’s novel because we haven’t done our homework, or choose to ignore our intellectual traditions.
Black joy keeps me from getting distracted or lost in existential conversations about black cultural validity. It’s all over my book. I insisted upon it, and continue to insist upon it in every poem. Beauty is what I’m after. Always.
CS: This kind of ecstatic beauty meets the violence of history so powerfully in the poem “Beauty’s Nest.”
RCL: Thank you, Claire. It’s a true story. My father and some black Yanks had come back from World War II. They wanted to see the Grand Canyon. A perfectly harmless, luscious desire. When they arrive, it’s nighttime. They’re all middle-class black veterans. They have the money for a hotel, but because it is the United States, which means, because it is racially segregated, there’s no hotel that will allow four United States veterans (who have just returned from fighting in the war, mind you) on behalf of the United States, to lodge at an American hotel—not a one! Four people, men who had witnessed lynchings, lived in the Jim Crow South, served in the segregated army, liberated a Nazi camp—these men were not legally allowed to stay in a hotel so they can see the Grand Canyon in their own country. They could walk on the sidewalks in Europe, sit down in any chair in any restaurant in Europe that they wished, but when they returned to their own birth place, they couldn’t even use their veteran dollars to pay for a room or a bed in a hotel? So there they stood in the pitch black looking at the darkness, unable to see the Grand Canyon, all because they at least wanted to say they had stood on the rim. Then they drove home. In the dark.
My father told me that story because I’d gone to the Grand Canyon for the first time. I was devastated by its beauty. I had rented a hotel by myself—little black suburban girl. I called my father that night from my room. “Oh my god! Daddy, have you ever been to the Grand Canyon?” He was kind of nonchalant. “Yeah, I’ve been there.” I was like, “What do you mean, ‘Yeah, I’ve been there’?! What’d you think when you saw it?” He said, “Well, I didn’t really see it.” I said, “Daddy, how could you miss it? That’s like going to the ocean and not seeing it.” So, he told me this story. It destroyed me.
The Grand Canyon is beauty to me. That’s something no person could ever possibly make. I’m not saying that human beings can’t make things of beauty. We can. We do it all the time. But the beauty we make has to be in relationship to that kind of sublime. I’m interested in using our individual desires to connect to larger historical or natural themes, otherwise why bother?
CS: In an interview with Leah Mirakhor, you spoke about poetry as an opportunity to make history human-sized: “[T]he reader can walk into the poem and sit with me.” It strikes me that the shape of the poem is a kind of space that we enter into. In what ways did your attempts to draw the reader into “Voyage of the Sable Venus” inflect your formal choices in that long poem?
RCL: I wanted the poem both to talk about the history of visual culture (race, gender, power) while also performing the history of poetic forms in English, simultaneously. That was very conscious on my part—to perform poetic history over time, formally, on the page, while using the language itself to discuss the visual culture that flourished aside that poetic tradition. These two disciplines are very much related, though we dissect them every day. We’re constantly trying to separate words from pictures, text from image, but that it’s impossible. I wanted Voyage to perform the history of that intersection, poem by poem.
For example, the couplet is one of the most common ancient forms, so the poem starts there and moves its way through all kinds of formal history until the end, where I’m playing around with enjambment, capitalization, free verse, and then finally, organic forms created by so many modernist feminist poets.
CS: You call “Voyage” a narrative poem, but it doesn’t have many of the hallmarks of conventional narrative. It’s a deeply fractured and shifting rendering across time and space. What does the label “narrative” do for you?
RCL: As a Western fantasy of cohesion: not much. As a historically constructed form? A great deal. For me, the ideal of “narrative” is riddled with holes. On one level it’s just a genre, right. A linear form that transports us from a beginning to end with lovely obstacles and pleasures thrown in for good measure. Perhaps. But on another level narrative as a form is formal propaganda—it’s like a flag—that has been used against people for millennia. I can’t separate the fantasy of history from the fantasy of narrative. I don’t know anyone whose life functions narratively, which is to say, I have never, ever seen a linear life. Have you?
Life, for me, is, at its core, about absence, fragmentation, ruin, and return. Mine certainly is, at least. I stood up to get my coat at a restaurant one evening, then I fell through a hole. Fifteen years later, I’m sitting with you, and I’m a poet, I have permanent brain damage, a beloved is dead, and I have an eight year old son. My father served in WWII in Europe and was a hero for so many there; and yet when he returned home, his own country gave him a mop and said Wash the shit off the floor, nigger, and don’t walk on the sidewalk! When I was a child, the police, who were supposed to be protecting us, shot at us regularly, for sport. So talk to me about linear cohesion. Talk to me about climax and narrative resolution. What resolution? We live our whole lives in political climax, in an extreme performances of state terror. I don’t see linear narrative in any way functioning anywhere, at least not in the ways in which I was indoctrinated to believe in. I just don’t believe in it. Heteronormativity is, in some ways, another word for narrative—and they all lived happily ever after. Or heteronormativity is narrative’s handmaiden. And yet, almost half of the country does not live in that kind of nuclear family fantasy, though you’d never know it from our literature.
I believe in silences and absences and rhyme—that people come and go, countries come and go, experiences come and go, in no order or sense I can make of any of it. Hell, mostly, they go. Sometimes they come back. That’s what narrative means to me. And I do believe in love. And I believe in beauty. They’re probably the same thing. Something so wild and free that we cannot touch it, only feel it inhabiting our bodies. I just saw a photograph taken in a slave burial ground of two skeletons, a mother and child, spooning. We know nothing else about them. Tell me that’s not a narrative.
The desire to have a whole story in one teaspoon is, for me, as colonial as anything else.
The problem with insisting on narrative as a performance of wholeness is that we don’t engage these fibers, these fragments. I love fragmentation. I like living in a floorless place. I like when something doesn’t make sense until the very end, at your last breath, on your deathbed—or perhaps never.
Can you be uncomfortable? That question is always in my ear. The desire to have a whole story in one teaspoon is, for me, as colonial as anything else. It’s like, “Oh you want to gain control, again, do you? Can you just stand here in the air with me for a minute?”
This is the challenge of writing for me—to push my reader past these categories, but not push them so far that they walk away from the work. I want to live with them in these slippery places that allow for nuanced explorations of what it means to be a historical subject travelling through time. The fantasy of a linear narrative doesn’t allow for that.
So I try to play with narrative as a fantasy, as a projection, as a historical construct—which it is. I’m constantly trying to take the floor out from underneath my readers, but to do it in a way that they know that while dangling them in midair, I’m holding them closely, too. I guess I want to be trusted completely. I know some writers who just like to fuck with their readers. I think that’s cruel. I can’t do that. I’m not that kind of writer or person. If I’m going to take you apart, I promise to put you back together again before I let you go.
CS: “Voyage” is also an epic poem—a roving work that engages events and representations central to the African diaspora. What’s your relationship to the epic?
RCL: Epic is my favorite form because it is, at its core, a collective art, collaboration. We don’t talk about that enough. It was oral. People sat around together, singing and listening—together! It’s that togetherness that I’m always after. It’s all I care about. If we can’t be here together, then what is the point of any of it? And so, with Voyage, I felt: “Here’s my little solo improv to go into the world’s great epic.” That makes me very happy.
Ultimately, I think it’s about loneliness. In order to stay healthy, with regard to my brain injury, I must spend an inordinate amount of time alone, in silence—or else my nervous system spins out. I stutter; I don’t make sense; I grow very spastic. But I can write a poem sometimes. I might have brain damage, but I can imagine, right? I might be in traction for one summer, but—if I use my imagination—I can suddenly be sitting with 20 people on an iceberg with a fire singing an Inuit lullaby. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the times to which I travel imaginatively are times when the epic is prominent. I like people. I hate people. I just want to be together singing.
CS: Would you talk a bit about “The Mothers?” That poem turns to a more recent past: Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Kitchenette Building.”
RCL: When I wrote that poem, Obama was running for president under the rhetoric of Hope. I was thinking a lot about how, in “Kitchenette Building,” Brooks subtly critiques Martin Luther King’s rhetoric of the dream, as well as the fantasy of the “American Dream.” That poem explicitly asks, What can a dream do for the poor? “Can dream make a giddy sound?” Who has time to dream when you’re trying to get to the bathroom and get to work? But, as someone who grew up poor, I also wanted to say, “Poor people have pleasures, too—and a LOT of them!” It’s often those without much who are abundant in imagination.
And so, one day I began to think, “What if, within that building that Gwendolyn Brooks imagined, there were two women whom she could not see?” I felt horrible for even thinking such a thought because in my mind there is no greater genius than Gwendolyn Brooks. I worship her. It felt sinful to reimagine any work she’s ever done. But I wanted to have a conversation with her, and with the world, about the ways we don’t imagine working class experiences/expressions of beauty and pleasure—especially mothers who are poor and married. We’re so indoctrinated (by narrative!), we can’t even imagine that two mothers might one day find each other indescribably pleasurable and necessary to each other. I wanted to re-envision that bathroom so prominent in Brooks’s poem, not as a sign of depravation, as Brooks did, but as site of profound joy. For all of the above reasons.
CS: The queer pleasure so distilled in that poem runs throughout the book.
RCL: Yes. Thank you for that observation. It begins with the first poem, and carries through to the end. Toni Cade Bambara is one of my favorite artists, on a long, long list of favorites. I’m always surprised when I reread her, which I do every year, that there isn’t one book of hers wherein she’s not critiquing the sexism so prevalent within political movements, particularly the Civil Rights Movement. She is relentless in that critique. Rightly so. She’s playful too, and so full of love, but she isn’t letting any one off the hook. So, yes, “The Mothers” is a Gwendolyn Brooks redux, but it’s also about the black feminist literary tradition. And yes, even then, regardless of how prevalent homoerotic relationships were and are between black women, the story of that fluid queerness is never told enough or properly—between women artists most of all! That’s a shame. No other word to call it.
That it is 2016 and we are still mired in such shame around queerness is the greatest tragedy—not to mention boring, archaic. So of course there is a theme of queerness throughout the book, a fluid theme that refuses stasis. Freud said that heterosexuality was the anomaly. Women are so fluid in their sexuality, which is one of the most beautiful things about us, I think. There is nothing like a woman on this planet. Nothing. And if my book is about Beauty, then it must necessarily contain a celebration of women, from our madness (read: “internalized misogyny”) to our delicious joy. “Mothers” is one of the places I really wanted to think about all the queerness we do not see because we expect it to be carrying a rainbow flag, or we don’t expect it to also be suckling a baby, and hence, we miss it entirely.
Everyone is in some type of a closet. Everyone. What defines and controls that hiding is another story. Hopefully we all own our own keys, but often that isn’t the case. Often it’s a parent or a nation. I insist upon this celebration in my work as a way to to keep the “narrative” ruptured, complex. Celebratory.
CS: Voyage summons black women artists again and again. The first section of “Voyage” is “Invocation: Blessing the Boat,” which calls up Lucille Clifton’s poem and collection, blessing the boats. What does Clifton mean to you?
RCL: I never met her, so she means grief. By the time I began writing poetry, she was passing away. And so—which should have been the point all along—I have her work, and I study it very intensively. I don’t know of any poet worth their weight in salt who doesn’t recognize Lucille Clifton’s mastery. Her language is so plain. That’s a hard feat. I love so-called “difficult poetry,” but for me the harder feat is to write about complex themes in plain language. Szymborska can do it. Shirley Horn, the great jazz singer was a master at taking something complex and making it look simple. Carmen McRae said no one played the piano as slowly as Horn, and that was hard to do, to slow down a jazz ballad. I think about that a lot. What’s the equivalent in poetry? I think Clifton knew, and she did it all the time.
Is there a place without trauma where women can exist? Is there a safe place within the context of patriarchy where women can be?
She will take you in every direction imaginable. She can do high-brow and low-brow in the same poem. Talk about epic! Talk about interrogating the notion of narrative. Her Fox poems do all that without ever any kind of anunciatory “ta-dah!”—such an aesthetic relief. And she’s very, very brave. Talk about not hiding. We struggle so much with shame. She was just not going to do that. Her work isn’t narcissistic, in that slippery way that the “I” becomes a cage in which we trap the reader, because we’re lonely, and then never let them out. Yet, she wasn’t the opposite either, that writer who pretends they are merely being private, when in fact it’s so obvious they’re hiding behind their performance. Clifton was some balance of a disappearing presence, or a very absent power. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she and Sharon Olds were such beloved friends. They take life so seriously, down to that speck of lint, but they will not play cat and mouse with the reader. Life is far too short.
So bringing “blessing the boats” into my book was a way to find quiet, too, in the complexity. My voyage needed a blessing. And then at the end, before the section where I thank all my friends, I use Lucille’s poem “a dream of foxes” as an epigraph. That poem is so powerful. It asks: Is there a place without trauma where women can exist? Is there a safe place within the context of patriarchy where women can be? No fur clumps on the ground. No blood. Just a straight line of women walking.
CS: Black women’s literary traditions are clearly one crucial archive for Voyage. What other archives informed this project?
RCL: The African Diaspora literary tradition. I am its humble devotee. It’s remarkable. The miracle of it, the fact that it exists at all. Think of Lucy Terry Prince—I research her work and history a great deal. Her poem, “Bars Fight”—late 18th century—no one wrote it down or published it for over a hundred years. It was preserved orally. That’s a magnificent beginning, tradition-wise. And we think we need a floor? We think we need a press? We think we need paper? We think we need the permission of any establishment? That kind of thinking offends this exceptional history of which we are a part.
Photography is an archive I rely on a great deal to work, as well—literally, but also ideologically. I’m a fellow at the Visual Studies Research Institute at USC where I am working at the on the history of photography, particularly black photography. Both the history of the image, as well as the history of the technology is an archive in which I spend most of my time now. The philosophy of photography is a great love.
And language. Language is the supreme archive for me. Etymologically, I can get lost for days, inside of centuries.
CS: Has your study of Sanskrit influenced the collection?
RCL: The long poem “Voyage” is a completely Sanskritic text. It’s also a text of comparative mythology. It mirrors many of the ancient myths of the colored world. My next book, too, is filled with epic. In Sanskrit epics, figures change form. Gods forget they’re gods. Goddesses forget they’re goddesses. Lovers forget they’re lovers. And then they remember. Or they don’t, and they kill each other. Or they find each other ten thousand years later, and only one person remembers that they were lovers, sadly. The other shallow idiot doesn’t have a clue. Mythology inspires and allows me to erase the lines around things that we pretend or believe solid, or fixed.
In “Voyage,” black female figures transmigrate in visual culture—performing various social forms, again and again, throughout Western visual canon. Mind you, what the occidental imagination has done to the black female figure is very heinous. Of course, the ancient black female is the occidental imagination in black drag. Nevertheless, watch her go! Watch her triumph from that imaginary failure. Baldwin said it beautifully: “For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever.” Epic imagination helps me to remember that, about all mythology really, particularly shapeshifting epics from cultures around world. It allows me to exalt the black female form, and to worship her.
Of course, the ultimate archive for me, is black memory. Of course.
CS: Was there any way in which having Sanskrit—this other grammar and ground on which to stand and view English almost outside-in—influenced the way you made these poems?
RCL: Absolutely. Sanskrit gave me that ultimate experience that language, all language, is just code—brain damage did that too: losing speech for a while, and then watching it all return, slowly over time, that was an invaluable experience.
But Sanskrit is the Big Mama of all Indo-European languages. Once you learn Sanskrit, it is very difficult to look at any Indo European language, especially structurally, and not grasp a great big bite of its architecture. Because of Sanskrit, I learned that I could take English apart completely, down to its studs. That was a lot of historical fun. A black art, if ever there was one, this business of deconstructing English. But then later English fell apart inside of me, because of brain damage. English was the wreck. And I had to put it back together—jalopy though it is. That’s when poetry entered the room, stood at the end of my bed, had a seat. And then things got very, very interesting.
After my accident, I had a bad bruise on the left side of my brain, which just destroys language altogether. I couldn’t remember my name some days, or the words for the simplest things. I remember sitting for an hour once and marveling over how to spell the. It looked so odd to me. English became visual. English became like a typewriter, letters were a toy: “Watch. You can take the whole thing apart and put it back together again.” Between Sanskrit and brain damage, English became all structure to me, a historical puzzle, all game. I take the history of languages very seriously, but I no longer imbue any kind of power into them. I wish I could talk with Fanon about brain damage and the colonized tongue, and the power we ascribe to language as animated by human beings. That’s beautiful, fascinating, and horrific.
Ultimately, all this allowed me to do things on the page that I probably would not have been able to see before (Voyage is as much a text of brain damage as it is an exploration of epic). For example, had I not studied Sanskrit, I would not have put all those initial caps in the Ancient Greece and Rome period. I probably wouldn’t have put them in couplets either. I wouldn’t have broken certain lines the way that I did. You know how we have the subject-verb-object rule in English? In Sanskrit, that rule does not exist so forthrightly. I could say, “Claire’s going to the beach.” But I could also say, “The beach” and then write for two pages about the beach, the beach, the beach, and then say “is going” with a declension that is somehow related to the subject—and we know that there’s a subject at some point; we have no clue who or what it is—and then two pages later say, “Claire!” And perhaps put that in the vocative too! It’s fantastic. Sanskrit has over 20 declensions. That’s just pure math, but math with letters instead of numbers!
Finally, in Sanskrit, there is so much attention to the music of language. Sanskrit is a language that must be sung. No one speaks it. We sing it, liturgically, ritually. What I love about being a poet is that I’m a musician first and foremost, but as an American, English is my instrument. Sometimes, readers aren’t even aware of being aurally seduced. That’s fantastic. That’s even better. Let me sing you this song, baby. I imagine it’s very similar to the history of jazz.
So Sanskrit taught me that, yes, but the Blues taught me to do that, too, perhaps more so. My family is from New Orleans, after all! I grew up listening to jazz and the blues all my life. And if ever there was a liturgical, sacred American form, it’s jazz! You want to watch somebody tear the fantasy of narrative to shreds? Listen to some jazz. Listen to the blues. You don’t have to go from a to z with all the alphabet in between. You can go d, x, b, g, z. That can be a narrative if you have the imagination—and if you don’t mind being uncomfortable.
I really feel that a lot of the problems we have as readers—and in our lives—is that we don’t want to be uncomfortable. But I want to trigger you. It’s my job. I will not leave you there. But I want to upset you wholly. I also want to love you wholly. I also want to tell you a joke. It depends on the project. But the idea that we should not upset the reader—that we should have you feeling safe and give you a floor—that’s not interesting to me, and it certainly isn’t art. That’s why I’m not so invested in linear narrative. Right now, a city has been blown to bits somewhere, and someone is walking down the street. That’s narrative. And if I’m not doing that in my writing, I’m not paying attention to the world. If I’m not paying attention to the world, I’m not being a real poet.
CS: Would you say more about your relationship to publication? I know that much of what you write is unpublished.
RCL: Publishing is at the core of my ambivalence about being a writer. I’m very suspicious of publication. I don’t know what it means. No—I don’t know what it does. What’s the point? I wonder perhaps too regularly. American culture is saturated by iconicity, celebrity. What is that about? I want to knit, and bake something luscious, and talk with my friends. Why must my desire to write necessarily be followed by a desire to publish? I love writing, and reading, but having that work engage the world publicly is something with which I still struggle. I’ve never been a particularly trusting animal, so I’m always suspicious about people’s motivations, my own most of all. I don’t want to publish from the place of a scar. Do I want to publish because I’m lonely sometimes, and need or want attention? I’d rather figure out a different way to find love. I don’t trust my ego. She’s much too clever. So I try to watch her very closely, and say “No” to her often. The work I ultimately decide to publish is work I hope will engage certain public or social conversations. Or work that I hope will begin those conversations. That is, if whatever I’m writing doesn’t have any significance outside of my own private life, for me, there’s no reason to publish it.
I won’t publish something just because it’s some kind of cathartic experience for me. That’s what therapy’s for.
Writing is something I have to do, some intense private secret need I must engage. I’ve done this in the wee hours of the night since I was a little girl. It was never for some ideal of a public. Perhaps I was just born at the wrong time. My idea of a good time, regarding poetry, is a group of friends sitting around a fire, reciting some poems—not necessarily our own. No paper, no grants, no tenure. And if there must be a parade, I just want to be one of the people in the crowd dancing down the street. I definitely don’t want to be on the float, or to write the anthem. Which is all to say I won’t publish something just because it’s some kind of cathartic experience for me. That’s what therapy’s for. So until I feel like a project has earned its right to be in the world, I won’t publish it. And by that I mean that unless a project feels like it can be of service in some way, in some way help further a conversation along, there’s no need I can see to publish it.
I’m still wondering: Did Voyage earn its right in trees? Was it worth it, the amount of trees that were cut down just so Voyage could be printed? I’m still not sure. Some days I’m comfortable with Voyage because Voyage helped to draw more popular attention to something we all saw. We saw those black female figures underneath the fountain holding up the world. We saw those black female figures as the foot of the bathtub. We pretended that we didn’t see them, but we know we did. Art historians had been telling us for over a century. And we saw it for ourselves, too, but looked away. So, I hope that Voyage will be one text among many that will not allow us to continue to pretend away our world. Maybe it will complicate the conversations we have about visual culture. Maybe it’s worth it.
CS: How did you come to Cave Canem?
RCL: After my accident, I was too sick to read essays or fiction. Too many words on the page. Some friends brought poetry because, quite simply, there were fewer words. Two of those first books were by Kevin Young and Elizabeth Alexander. Also Rita Dove. That work blew my mind. I recognized the profound historical moment being announced by their work and others, and it all gave me something to hunger for, to live for, literally. A new way of working. In their bios, I found out there was something called Cave Canem.
I started apprenticing myself to the work of many poets. I ordered and read every book by anybody in Cave Canem that I could get my hands on. Then, at some point—this is the beautiful thing about brain damage: your memories come and go—I remembered that as a child I had read Margaret Walker’s “For My People.” I was still being put into traction every day at physical therapy, then being lowered into a warm pool, braces everywhere. It was a hard time. But I asked someone to get the poem for me, and I reread it. Because of brain damage, I heard poetry differently. Poetry came alive. I cried the whole day—in awe. I could suddenly hear all the music, all the meter—I mean the deep structural music, not just rhyme, and it’s incredible relationship to history, in this case, black history. I saw what form allows you to accomplish, which an essay never could. Poetry was the marriage of everything I’d ever wanted, but had never been able to find together. There was a lot of grief. It was a watershed. A way that, perhaps, just maybe, even with brain damage, that I could return to an intellectual life. I couldn’t hold a pen. My physical therapist used to tape it into my hand so I could learn to write again. And my greatest inspiration at this time was the African American poetic tradition. I thought, if people who were enslaved were forbidden to learn how to read or write English, certainly brain damage could be overcome.
So, I started applying to Cave Canem. I was rejected three or four times before I got in. The pain of those rejections was delicious. It made me work harder. It made me read more. Think more. Try more. I asked, “What am I not doing? What is a poem? How do I get there?” I remember going to readings then. I was very, very sick. I was this weirdo figure with earplugs and dark glasses in the corner. I could barely talk. Sunlight hurt. Sounds hurt. Walking hurt. Lights hurt. Everything made me sick. But poetry didn’t hurt. It was the golden road back to the world. And it remains. Finally, finally, finally, one year, I got in. My life has never been the same.
CS: What was Cave Canem like?
RCL: It felt like a monastery without doctrinal or religious limits. A temple without a god, rules, or frame. Pure, pure magic. Many of my dearest, most beloved friendships are with Cave Canem fellows, staff, faculty. They’re in my head, always. They’re the first audience I think about when I’m writing. Eighty percent of the poems in my book were conceived of or written at Cave Canem. That’s no coincidence. The safety Cave Canem allows is tremendous.
I wrote “Félicité” at Cave Canem. I brought it into my workshop, and people loved it. I was shocked. I thought, “Wait, I just wrote a poem that confesses that my black family owned slaves. You’re not going to tar and feather me right here? I get to keep my identity? You’re still going to love me?” So the next day I came back with “Plantation,” which engaged the same material, but more heinously. I couldn’t believe that I’d been treated so tenderly and respectfully the day before. Submitting the second poems was as if to say, “Did you not understand what I said? I said ‘My black family owned slaves.’” Everyone there responded with such gentleness and profound aesthetic and critical respect, as if to say, “Yes, we heard you. And we’re still going to respect your work and help you to make it better. And most of all, we’re still going to love you, Robin.” Accepting is way too flimsy a word. Redemptive—also not a good enough. It was just profound. To know that my black family owned slaves, that scar in my psyche went from my scalp to the soles of my feet. It was always oozing throughout my whole life. But in less than 24 hours at Cave Canem, that whole ancient scar healed. Any location where shame exists was swept away from me, as a matter of course, and I was freed to work, and work seriously.
Toi [Derricotte] would often tell us: “Write what you’re most afraid of. Write about that part of you that makes you crazy. Write about what makes you do horrible things to other people. Write about why you can’t stop. Write about your greatest shame. Your weakness is often your most profound strength.” I didn’t get that kind of encouragement in any other classroom or studio. Cave Canem was the place that said “yes” to the ugliest parts of me. Indeed, they rejoiced in the ugliest parts of me. And like pretty, I learned that ugly is propaganda, too.
Cave Canem is also a site of profound joy. I have never laughed so deeply in my life. I think it is because there is just so much love and acceptance. It’s a small slice of Heaven.
CS: I’m thinking of the lines from “Félicité”: “I began to babble / any words I could think of // in four different languages, placing them in the most chaotic order / possible, in order // not to say these words: The black side of my family / owned slaves.” Those lines reminded me that the mask also poses a problem for the writer. Shame distorts art. It’s a problem of representation.
RCL: Oh god, yes. I can tell when a writer is hiding almost immediately. It happens more than we’re willing to admit. Don’t get me wrong, I think confession is overrated. I’m not that kind of artist who feels like you need to tell all. So, while I’m talking about how powerful it was for me to talk about the black side of my family owning slaves—and that shows up in the poems—that’s not the emotional truth. That’s why I didn’t write a book about black people owning slaves. I’ll never write that book. That’s not the point. The point is: Can I face my own history? Can you face yours? Can we face our own histories and remain intimate? Will you still love me at my ugliest? Will you allow me to love you at yours? That’s a much more interesting exploration for me. Because we’re still here together. We’re not going away.
I think about my family. They helped each other move from Louisiana to Los Angeles—cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, great uncles, great aunts, great grandparents. They got each other through. As a child, I watched them. I watched how they sewed wedding dresses and bridesmaid dresses and tuxedos for the whole wedding party. I watched how they washed a body after it had died, how someone was sent onward, with profound love. I watched how they buried people. I watched how they fed a widow. This staunchly determined love ethic: We will not leave each other, ever. I’m so grateful that I was raised in a community doggedly devoted to one another. But it’s hard to be post-modern when you were raised that way. If you believe in flowers and bread and pies and cakes and sweaters knitted for a beloved by hand, where do you go in 2016?
The only place black history belongs is on an altar!
I think about my parents: my father who fought in segregated World War II, or my mother who—when she was a little girl—came across a little boy, lynched, hanging from a tree. And then they quite accidentally found themselves in LA and married, my father after the war, my mother as one of many relatives who all arrived in Los Angeles together. My parents had four kids. After all of what they had seen, and done, how did they not go insane? I think a lot of my work is about is trying to figure out a way to retroject love back to those people. I’m not just speaking about my parents. I’m speaking about our history. The only place black history belongs is on an altar! Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully aware that just as there are assholes in every culture, some black people are assholes too. I’m not talking about romance here. I’m talking about history, and whether it is possible, through art, to go back and help to love that history into an exalted place? There is still so much work to be done.
CS: As a text, Voyage is, in some ways, very quiet, deep, grounded. As a first book, it came into the world with such a wide and whirlwind force. How was its journey inflected by the National Book Award win?
RCL: Well before we talk about the National Book Award, I just want to acknowledge that I like the idea of a quiet, grounded, deep text. I don’t know if it’s true what you say, but quiet—if not silence—is certainly an organizing theme of my aesthetic. I think silence it is a very powerful, effective too for art making. Silence holds the reader’s attention and creates a temporary but resonant intimacy between reader and writer. To do that with language is tricky, but without it, I think Voyage would have failed miserably. It had to be told quietly in order to engage the archive most powerfully. I’m sure I slipped off the wire many, many times, but that is the tone I was hoping to achieve, so thank you.
And so winning the National Book Award, a prize that is so public and vast in its celebration, and its incredible mission to inspire and keep the country reading (what a mission!), that stunned me to my core. I am still very, very speechless, still overwhelmed, still full of wonder.
The National Book Foundation is such an exceptional organization. There’s the prize, yes, but they also have so many other important programs that truly make a difference in the American literary landscape. I had no idea about the work that they did until after I won. Suddenly, my book was being reviewed all over the world, literally. Suddenly high school students were writing me letters. Librarians, archivists, curators, museums. I received letters from readers all over the world who wanted to discuss their experiences of art with me, and race and art, and gender and art. That’s a profound impact that my book quite simply would not have had. Period. Not just the winners, but the finalists, too. Being nominated exposes your work to a very large readership.
Personally, I found that exposure sometimes hard to navigate because although I’m a highly sociable person, I’m actually quite shy beneath it all, so sometimes I’ve wanted to retreat. But my work is my activism, it is my contribution, my love letter to the world, and so on the other hand, winning introduced me to thousands of readers, literally. My tour extended for the entire year, and then some. I’m still going. And the privilege of meeting so many readers who want to discuss art history and perception and race and loss and objectification. There’s nothing like it. It’s one of the most profound honors of my life. I gave a lecture for Literary Arts to an audience of a few-thousand people all on poetic erasures. I was so honored to be able to do that work, to expose people to more and more literature. Volunteerism is something I believe in wholeheartedly, so to be able to reach so many people, to be able to play this role, has been nothing but a profound honor.
But the most delicious joy I’ve experienced from winning the National Book Award was the incredibly vast, dawning realization that there is a legion—a legion!—of people working behind the scenes in service to art, whose only motivation is a love and devotion to literature. There are so many people, I mean thousands of people, working behind the scenes in order for writers to do their jobs. They don’t want to be known. They aren’t interested in popularity. They are staunchly devoted to putting the work into the hands of American readers. That is their passion! Writing is such a solitary art. To do it even remotely well, one must spend a great deal of time alone, so I just had no idea that there were so many people in the world working with great devotion on behalf of literature. They inspire me the most. I want to be on their team. I’m just a writer, but what they do is truly exceptional.